After 40 years, Miami's Snitzer gallery remains influential art hub
In sometimes mercurial Miami, only a handful of galleries can boast a 40-year history.
But Fred Snitzer — both the gallery and the man himself — have done more than simply survive in a notoriously uneven business. His vision has launched and nurtured careers of artists who now enjoy worldwide recognition. In the process, he has helped elevate Miami as a hub for world-class contemporary art that rivals the best of Basel, Berlin, New York and Hong Kong.
Like tree rings, Snitzer’s career chronicles Miami’s history. In the hippy-hangover 1970s, Snitzer sold poster art and sofa-sized paintings of Paris street scenes and Hong Kong harborscapes. An apt fit for the cowl-neck sweaters and polyester pantsuits that ruled the runways.
In the 1980s, when Miami was rocked by the Mariel boatlift and overridden with cocaine cowboys, Snitzer embraced the edgy art that reflected those rugged times.
By the 1990s, his gallery resembled a salon for local artists. Work by Cuban and Latin American artists became staples, including a memorable show dedicated to rafters who fled Cuba in “vessels” ranging from inner tubes to a Styrofoam crate that was rescued by a royal yacht.
In the new millennium, Miami went global with Art Basel. Organizers of the premier contemporary art fair turned to Snitzer for guidance regarding the Miami art scene.
It’s a long way from Snitzer’s father’s discount drugstore in Philadelphia. Snitzer once imagined a simple life there, teaching art and making sculptures in his spare time. But though he’d earned an undergraduate degree from the Philadelphia College of Art and a master’s degree from Penn State, Snitzer couldn’t find a visual arts job in his hometown in the mid-1970s. So, he moved to Miami, where his older brother was training to become a neurosurgeon.
Art jobs, Snitzer found, were equally scarce in Miami. But he did manage to land a part-time position framing and selling art at a discount gallery for $3 an hour. The gallery specialized in sofa-size oil paintings of Paris street scenes for $29.95 each. The boss turned out to be a browbeating ogre, but his nine months on the job gave Snitzer insight into who buys art and why.
Armed with his newly acquired framing skills, Snitzer, then 27, decided to go into business for himself. In December 1977, he rented space on Biltmore Way in Coral Gables.
“I got the idea that I could rent a place, have my own studio, sell posters, give art lessons and do my own work,” he says. His father staked him enough money to buy his initial inventory of posters and helped him scout out auctions and wholesale markets.
Snitzer’s initial strategy: underprice the competition. While other local galleries charged their customers twice the wholesale rate, Snitzer was satisfied to make only half the profit. What he bought for $100, he would sell for $150, giving his customers a $50 discount at a time when $50 was real money.
“So, I basically ran the gallery like my father’s discount store,” he says. “But then my problem was whenever I made a little money, I wanted to go home and take a nap. I didn’t have any ambition.”
He hired a helper, and they spent most days playing chess and talking. After a while, the place became a hangout, like a Saturday barbershop, where the discussions often centered on art. Over time, those discussions crystalized his understanding of what local artists were creating. He began taking an interest in emerging Cuban artists such as José Bedia and Luis Cruz Azaceta and even exhibited his own work in group shows with them.
“We had started a little artists’ group called ‘Nada,’ he says — a play on the Spanish word for nothing. “It was in response to Dada,” he says in reference to the post-World War I art movement founded in response to the horrors of war. His ‘Nada’ is unaffiliated to NADA, the annual December art fair by the New Art Dealers Alliance.
The Nada group began exhibiting its works in bars on Calle Ocho, at the Cuban Museum and even on Metrorail. It was an exciting time, with new artists and a lot of activity. “Miami was in turmoil,” he says. “We represented a lot of Cuban artists.”
The ’80s also brought a whole new clientele to Miami’s art market. It was the age of the Cocaine Cowboys.
Snitzer recalls: “A limo pulls up. These two guys in fur coats in the middle of the summer prance into the gallery and they pick out a $15,000 Chagall. They say they want to buy it, and they’re going to send their driver back to pay. The driver comes back. He’s dressed like a limo driver, with a paper bag. He says, ‘I want to pay you, but do you have somewhere private?’
“He goes in the back, on the table where I did all of my framing, and he dumps out of the bag a pile of cash — rolled up. He’s going to count $15,000 off of the roll. Puts a gun down next to the money.”
Just as the limo driver began to unfurl his wad of bills, Snitzer’s best friend enters the gallery through the back door and the driver goes for his gun. In a panic Snitzer yells out, “No! Stop! Don’t kill anybody.” The driver proceeded to count out the money, paid for the print and left.
“A year later,” Snitzer says, “I get a call from an attorney who says he now owns these things because those guys went to jail. What a surprise. They went to jail and do I want to buy it back. I said, ‘Yeah, it’s worth about $5,000.’ ”
By the early 1990s, Snitzer had opened a new gallery on Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables. Bonnie Clearwater, who headed the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami at the time, recalls that Snitzer provided a salon for like minds.
“In the early ’90s, when the gallery was on Ponce and he was focusing on the ’80s-generation from Cuba, it was really the place that everybody would just stop in on a Saturday,” Clearwater says. “You never knew who you were going to see, and it connected the community. There was great dialogue and it was impromptu.”
Much of the conversation centered on the Mariel Boatlift, in which roughly 125,000 Cubans fled Fidel Castro in 1980. That was followed by another mass exodus in 1994, when Castro again allowed many who wanted to leave to do so. Snitzer decided to make an exhibit featuring the various rafts used in the exodus.
“One of the rafts was a Russian Styrofoam crate,” he says. “It was a crate that they used to ship a chandelier to Cuba.” The refugee aboard ended up being treated like a king when the British Royal Yacht Britannia rescued him on May 28, 1991. Lazaro Sandoval, a 21-year-old textile worker, just missed meeting Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who had been in Miami two weeks earlier, when they hosted a private dinner for two former presidents aboard the yacht.
By the mid-990s, Snitzer’s influence began having a more far-reaching effect when he landed a job teaching at the New World School of the Arts, Clearwater notes. He later became a pioneer gallerist in Wynwood and was instrumental in providing young artists a forum for group shows, she says.
One of those artists is Hernan Bas.
“Fred has been the big name in town for as long as I’ve known Miami to be an arts city,” says Bas, one of Miami’s most celebrated contemporary artists. Bas maintains that Snitzer shielded him from the predatory nature of the art world, where some people scramble to buy the next best thing only to flip it at auction.
Bas, now 39, was 19 when he participated in his first group show at Snitzer’s gallery. “It’s scary territory when you’re a young artist getting a lot of attention,” he says.
“I think the key to being a good dealer is in sheltering the artist from the negativity and aggression that can happen in the industry,” he says, adding, “I think he did a damn good job of it early on.”
New York sculptor Alice Aycock says Snitzer is equally supportive of established artists such as herself. She counts him as a good friend, who takes a genuine interest in the artists he represents. “What he’s done, first and foremost, is that he is somebody who gets me and has stood by me,” she says. “He comes from a period in which artists were making art and he was an artist. So, he understands there was a time before everything was just a commodity to be bought and sold.”
But he also understands that artists have to eat. So, he cultivates their market.
Jorge Pérez, namesake donor of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, is a repeat client who has bought from Snitzer for nearly four decades.
“When Fred and I started together, he was selling more inexpensive art and doing framing to survive, and I was trying to collect whatever I could afford,” Pérez says. “So, we both became friends then. It is the best time to establish a friendship and start talking about art, when money is not the driving issue.”
Last year, Snitzer helped one of his students from New World land a $400,000 commission for a Pérez project. The emerging artist, Rafael Domenech, created a monumental sculpture featuring a profusion of giant rings for a memorable entrance to the Hyde Resort & Residences in Hollywood, Florida.
“He did an incredible installation for us in this project,” Pérez says. Snitzer keeps him apprised of younger artists who show great promise but have yet to make a name for themselves. “Fred was instrumental in showing us the works of these young artists, which otherwise we would not know. He is very respected in the art world. I think he has a keen eye, and I follow many times his advice as to which artists he thinks are good. Of course, I have to like the work.”
And Snitzer has to like the work in order to represent the artist.
Snitzer’s continuous presence in the Miami art scene as artist and dealer, his local knowledge and his extensive list of longtime collectors made him a natural choice for Art Basel’s selection committee when the fair launched in Miami. From the fair’s first year, Snitzer participated in the selections. The Miami opening was delayed a year, to 2002, by the terrorist attacks in September 2001.
“What’s great abut Fred is on the one hand he’s somebody who knows and believes in and helps foster the scene in Miami,’’ says Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel. “And because he travels extensively, he’s also able to supply an international perspective.”
Snitzer is the only gallerist who has served 17 straight years on the selection committee. It comes with its own set of headaches. “It is a laborious, five-day, tortuous process, which I don’t do any more,” he says. “I’m just there to talk about Florida galleries. To look, to see who’s out there, to report. I don’t even vote. And I haven’t voted in quite a while.”
There’s a misperception that any gallery located in South Florida should be able to show at Art Basel’s big fair in the Miami Beach Convention Center. They feel a certain entitlement, he says, despite failure to participate in the international market or exhibit in other contemporary art hubs such as New York, Los Angeles, Basel, Paris, Berlin, Dubai and Hong Kong.
“It’s very controversial and everybody was like, ‘Oh, well, you pick yourself every year.’ ” It’s a familiar lament, especially from local gallerists who either don’t apply or aren’t chosen. “It’s the old story,” he says. “If your kid didn’t get into Harvard, it’s Harvard’s fault.”
Says Spiegler, “Fred wants other galleries in South Florida to succeed, but he understands that putting them up for projects that wouldn’t hold up to an Art Basel standard doesn’t work.”
While Art Basel has put Miami on the art-world map, such recognition does not always trickle down to local galleries, says Bas, who has been represented by Snitzer for nearly two decades. “It’s a tough call in Miami still,” says Bas, who splits his time between Miami and Detroit. “I think it is really hard to be a dealer there, despite all the hoopla with Art Basel.”
Part of what keeps Snitzer in business, says longtime Miami art collector Bob Moss, is his “incredible integrity.” Snitzer once even agreed to rescind a sale because Moss later regretted the purchase. “It was a considerable amount of money, and he said, ‘OK, I’ll take it back.’ It was something ordinary dealers don’t do.”
That kind of consideration for the client keeps Moss and his wife, Dede, coming back after 22 years. Snitzer’s longevity in the business also adds to his appeal. “I think he’s had a great impact because he’s a survivor and has survivor skills in an industry that’s up and down,” says Moss. “It’s been parallel to the economic trajectory of the city. There have been ups and downs, and it affects dealers a lot.”
Snitzer concedes, “A hundred times a real businessman would have gone out of business.” He has kept the gallery open in part because he felt supremely unsuited to do anything else.
Snitzer marvels that he was able to accomplish everything in Miami that he originally set out to do in Philadelphia — and more.
“For me, I got to sell work,” he says. “I make work. I’ve had a bunch of solo shows in the last 10 years. I teach one day a week for the last 25 years at New World. I won.”
IF YOU GO
Fred Snitzer Gallery, 1540 NE Miami Court, 305-448-8976, snitzer.com.
“Still Crazy: 1977-2017,” a show featuring works by many of Snitzer’s top artists, runs Feb. 16 - March 31, with an opening-night reception at 7 p.m.